Georgians look east as western doors stay shut

Georgia Map

(Business New Europe – – Michael Cecire – June 12, 2015)

Michael Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transition

The occasion of Victory Day, the Soviet commemoration of victory over Nazi Germany, has always held certain propaganda value for Russia. But the ongoing war in Ukraine and the ensuing East-West standoff has imbued the event with an even sharper metaphorical significance. Victory Day has also coincided with a moment of great apprehension in nearby Georgia, where Russia-backed separatist regimes highlight the country’s painful vulnerability, while Tbilisi’s quest to join the EU and Nato looks as stillborn as ever.

Beyond the awkwardness of pro-Stalin rallies in the late Soviet dictator’s hometown of Gori and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s uncomfortably bizarre tribute to Stalin, more worrying signs of creeping Russian influence is emerging in Georgia. The timing was coincidental, but there was something unhappily poetic about Victory Day coinciding with a new survey from the National Democratic Institute showing local support for joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) had jumped from 20% in 2014 to 31%.

Georgian and international analysts have largely met the news with either panic or dismissiveness. In the latter column, questions are routinely raised about the quality of the data or, more incisively, whether or not ordinary Georgians sufficiently understand the question being posed. Of course, this ignores the fact that growing pro-EEU sentiments are hardly a one-off statistical blip, but represent a trend going back at least several years. While regular Georgians may not fully understand the EEU’s technical intricacies (in fairness, even few experts actually do) – such as the EEU’s inherent incompatibility with Georgia’s EU free trade and association deal – there is little question that the National Democratic Institute numbers reveal real and growing support for Eurasianism in Georgia.

The easy culprit for expanding Eurasianism is Russia – and its ongoing influence operation campaign in Georgia and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, Russia is known to be financing an array of local pro-Kremlin political groups and non-governmental organizations while cementing its direct hold over the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, the goalposts for Euro-Atlantic integration seem to be always just out of reach, despite – or perhaps because of – Georgia’s habit of blowing past whichever concrete technical standards it is asked to meet as a precondition for further Western integration.

This growing sense that Georgia is destined to remain on the outside of the big Euro-Atlantic clubs for the foreseeable future, regardless of the merits, is stoking Georgian public scepticism, and even fatalism, about its Western path. Indeed, why align with the West for the sake of a few symbolic overtures, without EU or Nato membership in sight, and at the risk of goading Russia’s powerful ire?

Awkward truths

Nino Burjanadze, an ex- speaker of parliament and one-time Westernizer, has skilfully rebranded as a pro-Russia agitator and re-emerged from the national political wilderness as the face of a growing accommodationist opposition movement that appears poised to enter parliament in numbers in 2016. Russian financing is likely a major part of her ongoing reinvention, but no less important has been her depressingly credible claim as a voice for hard truths on the subject of Euro-Atlantic integration. “We have been told in English, in French, in German, and I have said it in Georgian for a long time,” Burjanadze recently said, referring to regular comments by Nato member state leaders that Georgia would not be receiving an invitation to join the Atlantic Alliance. “In which other language should we be told?”

Burjandze and her ilk, despicable as they may be, have found the soft underbelly of the Euro-Atlantic conditionality dance. The politicization of the Nato and EU expansion process – and the poverty of willingness to accept near-term Georgian accession – has made truth-tellers out of pro-Russia reactionaries and embarrasses pro-West democrats who only ask for clear, concrete pathways to membership. The West cannot decry Russian information operations in one breath while empowering their local agents with the next.

A second and equally pernicious local driver for growing Eurasianist support is the rather compelling local economic argument for the EEU. While the EEU has been widely denigrated in the West (not necessarily unfairly) for lacking purpose and vision, it nonetheless fills a very real niche in the Eurasian economic landscape. In Georgia, as in other post-Soviet and developing economies, the path to prosperity has been riddled with detours, setbacks and extended periods of serious economic pain. Adapting to the rigours of a globalized economy has been a tremendous challenge, requiring the retooling of entire industries and the concomitant displacement of vast segments of local labour markets – all for the sake of competitiveness.

But as Georgia’s experience has shown, extensive and even painful reforms do not necessarily result in well-paying jobs and prosperity. Outside the Baltics, Georgia has been and remains a leader in anti-corruption, rule of law and business-friendly policies. It has experienced periods of strong, even dizzying, economic growth and its development and infrastructure has expanded exponentially since the mid-2000s. But even now, official unemployment is stuck in the double digits, and the true rate of unemployment is probably closer to more than twice that number.

Also worryingly, Georgia has yet to identify its international economic comparative advantage; under the previous United National Movement, efforts were focused on high-growth, service-oriented industries, which fuelled the rise of a small, white collar elite, but did little to bring sustained growth outside Tbilisi’s central districts and a few handpicked, showcase regional cities. Under the current Georgian Dream coalition, that emphasis has swung back towards more labour-intensive industries like agriculture, but Georgia has yet to find its array of niche markets to drive broader growth. Whatever the fate of Georgia’s industrial strategy, it will take time, effort and painstaking reforms before the winning formula is found.

More to the point, the much-anticipated Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) that Georgia signed as part of its Association Agreement with the EU may be a long-term winner, but in the shorter term is just as likely to be an added burden to Georgian businesses, which will have to cope with new, byzantine standardization requirements and the rigours of understanding the lengthy process of obtaining EU-sanctioned export certificates. By contrast, the EEU looks like an attractive option, particularly in the near term.

Unlike the EU, the Georgian economy is more or less already primed for the EEU. We know this because one of Georgia’s chief export drivers, its famous wines, has been enjoyed massive growth since Russia reopened its markets to Georgia goods in 2013. In the EEU, Georgia has large, relatively prosperous and eager markets already familiar with the Georgian “brand”. With high protectionist barriers, Georgian goods would not have to compete with many big European or multinational competitors. And, likely attractive to certain elements, the EEU markets have a much higher tolerance for corruption, graft and monopolistic practices.

The EEU, of course, is also likely a vehicle of diminishing economic returns. If Georgia can overcome the short-term pain of adapting to the EU’s higher standards and find its place in the globalized marketplace, its export opportunities will be more plentiful and lucrative, and the Georgian economic ceiling will be much higher. But long-term strategic thinking is a rare commodity even in mature democracies, and the political exigencies that EEU integration provides may prove too much for some politicians – and their constituents – to ignore, particularly as the drawbridge into fortress Europe stays shut. This is not merely a Georgia issue; this is a Eurasia and Eastern Europe issue. The EEU may never be a world-beating dynamo, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as Euro-Atlantic doors are closed, it just has to exist to be “good enough”.